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How Good Christians Sometimes Do the Devil’s Work – Matthew 16:21-23

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Sermon 2 of 8 from the Beyond Denial: Finding Ourselves in Peter’s Story series
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March 2009“Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” (Matthew 16:23)

Everything about this story seems strange. First Peter rebukes Jesus, and then Jesus rebukes Peter. This is some of the harshest language Jesus ever used. Though he used more colorful language when he excoriated the Pharisees (Matthew 23), he never called them “Satan.” For that matter, even though the Bible says that Satan entered Judas (John 13:27), Jesus never called him “Satan.”

Peter remains the only person Jesus ever called “Satan.”

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The timing makes this whole story even more peculiar. In the preceding verses Peter has just uttered a magnificent statement of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus responded with high praise of his own:     

            –You are blessed (v. 17).      
            –You didn’t learn this from man but from God (v. 17).
            –Upon this rock I will build my church (v. 18).
            –I give you the keys of the kingdom (vv. 19-20).

From that high point Jesus begins to unveil the future to them (v. 21):

            –He must go to Jerusalem.
            –He must suffer many things at the hands of the Jewish leaders.
            –He must be killed.
            –He must be raised on the third day.

Our problem stems mostly from the fact that all of this is old news to us. If you have been a Christian for any period of time, you know the story of Good Friday and Easter. And even if you aren’t a Christian, you probably know the general outline. So no matter how we read this story, it’s not “new news” to us. We’ve heard it all before. And therein lies the problem. The disciples were hearing this for the very first time. And the thought of their Master being killed in Jerusalem simply staggered them. They had no categories for it. No way to think about it.

If we live on the level of our emotions, we may find ourselves actually opposing Jesus.

He told them the bad news and they couldn’t handle it.
Evidently they didn’t even hear the part about rising from the dead.
They had no category for that either.

In Mark’s parallel account (Mark 8:31-33), he adds that Jesus spoke “plainly” about the future, meaning he didn’t pull any punches, didn’t sugarcoat it, didn’t say, “Well, there might be a little trouble in Jerusalem.” Nothing like that

None of it made sense. So Peter did what we generally do when we think someone we love is talking “crazy talk.” He pulled Jesus aside so he could set him straight.

“Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Twice he told Jesus “never.”

We are all either climbing toward heaven by God’s grace or sliding toward hell on our own. 

It’s as if he thinks Jesus has momentarily lost his mind. I think he means, “Lord, don’t worry about it. There are twelve of us. We’ll keep you safe. They’ll have to go through us to get to you.”

But you can’t get around it. He “rebuked” the Son of God. This is not a good move for an aspiring disciple of Christ.

Why did he do it?

So we pause to ask our first question. Why did he do it? What was Peter thinking when he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him.

First, he did it because he loved Jesus and wanted to spare him the pain of crucifixion. Surely this must be counted as a noble if misguided emotion.

Second, he didn’t understand God’s plan. Peter’s view of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” did not include the shame and horror of public crucifixion. Here is the paradox of Peter at this point. Just seconds earlier he had made one of the most profound declarations anyone has ever made. But in his mind he had no category for the “Suffering Servant” or the “Crucified Son of God.” He simply could not grasp how someone as good and holy and pure and righteous as Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel, would suffer and die like a common criminal.

Third, he thought he knew God’s will better than Jesus. At this point he stands in direct opposition to God’s plan to bring salvation to the world. We must not water this down. The text says that he “rebuked” Jesus. That doesn’t make any sense. You don’t go around rebuking the Son of God. In the Old Testament people got killed for that sort of irreverence.

Fourth, he wanted a kingdom without a cross. And who could blame him? We can barely understand what crucifixion meant to the Jews in the first century. It was the ultimate instrument of public torture. Perhaps lynching would be the closest modern equivalent. Today we wear bright, shiny crosses to remember Jesus’ death. No Jew would have understood such a thing. To them the cross meant brutal, public, bloody, painful, agonizing, shameful death. If we want a modern counterpart, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary. Or put a noose there. Or an electric chair with a man dying in agony-his face covered, smoke coming from his head. The very thought sickens us. But that’s what the cross meant for Jesus.

If we want a modern counterpart to the cross, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary.

No wonder Peter rebuked him.

And then Jesus rebuked Peter but with one difference. Jesus rebuked him publicly. Mark makes it clear that Jesus looked at all the disciples when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

First he calls him the “rock.”
Seconds later he calls him Satan.

Why Did Jesus Call Him Satan?

That leads to our second question. Why did Jesus use such strong language? Why did he call Peter “Satan"?

First, Peter was guilty of false intimacy and ignorant presumption. We must not miss the context. After the wonderful things that Jesus said to Peter, I imagine it must have gone to his head. Perhaps he was “feeling his oats” a little bit. After all, if he is the “rock” and has the “keys to the kingdom” (notwithstanding that the keys were given to all the apostles, not just to Peter, and they ultimately belong to the whole church), surely he has the right to take Jesus aside and do a bit of “iron sharpens iron,” one man helping another, that sort of thing. But he was wholly out of line in what he did.

Second, Jesus knew that Satan stood behind Peter’s well-meaning but misguided words. Satan’s plan for Jesus always avoided the cross. In the wilderness he had taken Jesus to a high mountain, offering him all the kingdoms of the world if only he (Jesus) would bow down and worship him (Satan). It was a seductive temptation. “Jesus, why go through the pain and shame of the cross? Worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world.” Even though Peter was not conscious of being used by Satan, he was truly doing his work by attempting to keep Jesus from going to the cross.

Even the fierce hatred of the Jewish leaders fulfilled God’s eternal plan. 

Third, Jesus knew he must go to the cross in order to provide salvation for the world. That’s why Jesus used the word “must.” He “must” go to Jerusalem where he “must” suffer and “must” die and “must” rise from the dead. Nothing would happen by chance. Even the fierce hatred of the Jewish leaders fulfilled God’s eternal plan. Nothing was contingent in the mind of God about the death of his Son. That’s why the Bible speaks of him as a lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). 

Eugene Peterson catches the sense of Jesus’ answer this way: “But Jesus didn’t swerve. ‘Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.’” That’s a good way to put it because Peter at that point had no idea how God works. 

To Peter the cross was evidence of failure.
To Jesus the cross was the purpose for which he came to earth.

To Peter the cross meant that Jesus had been defeated.
To Jesus the cross was the means by which Satan was defeated.

To Peter the cross meant that evil had won the day.
To Jesus the cross was the path to final victory over sin.

To Peter the cross meant that Jesus was gone forever.
To Jesus the cross led to the empty tomb.

To Peter the cross was a badge of shame.
To Jesus the cross brought salvation to the world.

To Peter the cross meant they had no message to preach.
To Jesus the cross became the message they would preach to the nations.

To Peter the cross made no sense.
To Jesus the cross displayed the wisdom of God.

So greatly did Peter and Jesus differ at this point that Jesus could say “Get behind me, Satan!"  When he said, “You have become a stumbling block to me,” he used a word for an animal trap that was triggered by means of a stick. When the animal brushed that “death stick,” the trap closed on him. Jesus knew that Peter’s well-meaning words were like a “death stick” to God’s plan of salvation.

What Should We Learn From This?

One final question calls for our attention. What should we make of this episode? What does it say to us today? Let me suggest a few things for our consideration.

First, good men smetimes do the devil’s work. Peter was most certainly a good man. His foolish words here cannot cancel his brave statement of faith a few seconds earlier. What a man Peter was! If he was the first to climb the summit of Christ’s Messiahship, he is also the first to fall off the cliff. Though Peter was undeniably right in what he said earlier, he was just as wrong here. So let us learn something about the danger of spiritual presumption.

Second, our victories and defeats often come back to back. It is not hard to see why it should be this way. Victories naturally tend to build our confidence. When Peter heard the wonderful things said to him, did it go to his head? I think it probably did. And just as quickly as he rose, so quickly did he fall. And it was his rising that led to his falling. So it will be for all the sons and daughters of Adam. We will be like Elijah winning some great victory on Mount Carmel only to run in fear from Jezebel the next day. And there is always a Jezebel! Satan has lots of Jezebels, lots of traps, lots of “death sticks” to put in our path, and because he is smart, Satan knows that the best time to trap us often comes after some great victory. While we celebrate, our defenses are down, our emotions take over, our guard lowers, and we do things and say things that we later regret.

Our victories and defeats often come back to back.

Third, our closest friends may sometimes become our worst enemies. In this case Peter’s loyalty was not in question. What he said was foolish and wrong and reflected wrong thinking, but down deep he truly loved the Lord. That’s what makes this so tricky. We may find that our loved ones unwittingly become dupes of Satan, tools he uses to get us sidetracked spiritually. In fact I daresay that this sort of temptation would more likely come from a husband, a wife, a co-worker, a close friend, a parent, a child, a close relative, or a friend we’ve known forever. In their attempt to “protect” us from what they perceive as danger, they may be Satan’s tools to keep us from doing God’s will.

Our Friends May be a “Death Stick”

Our close friends sometimes will not understand God’s call on our lives. And in their attempts to dissuade us, they may end up doing the devil’s work. That does not mean we shouldn’t listen to the cautions and honest questions of our loved ones. Sometimes they sense something we have missed. But other times they may be a “death stick” to our attempts to serve the Lord.

Consider the young person who senses God’s call the mission field. Such a call is not likely to be well received in every quarter. Some will say, “We have plenty of lost people here in America.” Or “You can make more money and help send more missionaries if you stay home.” Or “I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in Somalia.” Or “You’re throwing away a good education if you go overseas.”

Consider the husband who wants to give more to the Lord’s work this year. But we are in such an economic crisis that giving more seems foolish and even dangerous. A wife may say, “We need all the money we make to pay our bills.” What is the husband to do then?

Our close friends sometimes will not understand God’s call on our lives.

Or a woman in her early 40s may sense God’s call to leave the business world to serve the Lord in a ministry that pays a fraction of what she is making now. Her friends think she is nuts. Is she?

When we set out to serve the Lord, we can always think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t. Or why we should play it safe or take it easy or not be too extreme. If we don’t think of those excuses, our friends will likely think of them for us. And unwittingly our friends may become tools of Satan. Or we may be the same for them.

It is so easy to go down, to take the road of least resistance.
It is so hard to go up, to take the road that leads to the cross.

Not many people will cheer us when we take that road.

To return to the story for a moment, how striking that the “rock” should become a “stumbling block” so quickly. As it was for Peter, so it will be for all of us. Our strengths and our weaknesses lie side by side. Often they seem to be interconnected. Sometimes they seem to be welded together.

As it was for Peter, so it will be for all of us. Our strengths and our weaknesses lie side by side.

So quickly we rise.
So quickly we fall.

As I studied this passage, it occurred to me that in some ways this was a greater sin than Peter’s denial. Though it is his denial that we remember and not this occasion, this is the only time Jesus called Peter “Satan.”

At the denial Peter hurt himself and he hurt the cause of Christ generally.
But here Peter directly (though unwittingly) attacked God’s plan of salvation.

Satan did everything he could to keep Christ from the cross.
He does everything he can to keep us from taking up the cross.

“The Cannibals!”

In 1839 two men from the London Missionary Society landed in the New Hebrides, a chain of eighty islands in the South Pacific. Those two missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals in November of that year. Eventually other missionaries came and the gospel began to take root on some of the islands. Nineteen years later a young man named John Paton set sail for the New Hebrides. When he announced his desire to go, a Mr. Dickson exploded, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” But to this Paton responded:

Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.

Now that’s some good in-your-face spiritual moxie. It’s the spirit that animates the worldwide Christian movement. You can read more about John Paton in You Will be Eaten by Cannibals!.

At this point we should ask some questions:

Am I ashamed of the cross of Christ?
Am I avoiding the cross myself?
Am I blocking someone else from taking their cross?
Do I demand that God’s plan make sense before I follow it?

A story such as this should cause us all of to pause and think about ourselves, about how quickly we may do the devil’s work without even knowing it. If we live on the level of our emotions, we may find ourselves actually opposing Jesus. If we think that our understanding equals God’s will, we are bound to fall into many grievous errors. And if we think that the way of the cross is not for us, then we ought to ask ourselves if we have ever really trusted in Christ at all.

Do I demand that God’s plan make sense before I follow it?

Sometimes our problem boils down to the fact that we want something God doesn’t offer:

A padded cross.
A shiny cross.
A comfortable cross.
A cross we can wear under our clothes.
A cross without any blood or pain.

But that cross exists only in our mind. There is no way of salvation apart from the bloody cross of Jesus for it was on that cross that the wrath of God was satisfied, the price  for sin was paid, and our guilt was removed. Oddly enough, Peter’s attempt to “rescue” Jesus would have doomed his own soul. Jesus had to die in order for Peter to be forgiven.

The law of the cross is the law of the kingdom. Those who would enter heaven must go by way of the cross of Christ. Apart from him there is no hope, there is no heaven, there is no forgiveness, and there is no salvation. So it will ever be for the followers of Christ.

The law of the cross is the law of the kingdom. 

He Never Made This Mistake Again

Peter was a good and great man, and I say that in full recognition of all his faults. We see the grace of God at work because though he falls again and again, he learns from his mistakes. Like most of us, he makes many mistakes, but he generally doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Later on he will stand on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, boldly preaching the gospel to some of the very people who crucified our Lord. There he will proclaim that Jesus was delivered up by “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” and then by the hands of wicked men was put to death (v.  23). Three thousand men will be saved on that day. Peter came to see that the cross was absolutely necessary in God’s plan. So though he makes many other mistakes, he never makes this mistake again.

Let me wrap up by noting how close heaven and hell are in the human heart. It’s just a short trip from one to the other. Peter is called blessed in verse 17 and Satan in verse 23. We can one moment be praising God and the next uttering some foolish, unkind, critical remark that would be better left unsaid. We can pray and swear. We can quote Scripture and gossip. We can testify for Jesus and then play the fool in almost the same breath. These things ought not to be, as James pointed out in his epistle, but there they are in all of us.

We are all either climbing toward heaven by God’s grace or sliding toward hell on our own. Peter’s story reminds us that it is not one incident alone that makes a life. Though you fall again and again, it is the getting up that marks the true child of God.

Aren’t you glad that Peter kept on getting up? I am!
Aren’t you glad that Jesus kept on helping him up? I am!

Peter was something of a mess, but then so are most of us. He was a shaky rock, a fragile stone, an imperfect disciple whom Christ formed into a rock that in the end could not be shaken. So that’s our hope too. Though we may do the devil’s work from time to time (and suffer for it), the mighty Christ comes to set us right again. Amen.

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